Malancourt Wood, Verdun

Posted on Wednesday 3rd February 2016


malancourt wood
The result of the German success on the Mort-Homme was to change the shape of the lines on the Left Bank. In front of Cote 304 these now formed a deep salient, which looped to the north around the villages of Malancourt, Haucourt and Béthincourt and enclosed several French strong points and centres of resistance. A simultaneous attack on both sides of this salient would, if successful, cut off all these positions at once, but as German resources did not stretch that far it was decided to attack from one side only. To attack from the north meant approaching over open ground controlled by a series of fieldworks; but attacking from the west would allow them to use the cover of an extensive forest and this was the approach chosen.

The first step was to clear the French from a line of strong positions on the western side of the salient that could then be used as a base for a further German advance. The first to be dealt with was Malancourt Wood, a sizeable wedge-shaped area of forest that dominated Haucourt and Malancourt and commanded the approach to Cote 304 from the west. Described by one observer as an inextricable tangle of trees and underbrush no different from a primeval forest, Malancourt Wood had, since December 1914, been home to two French infantry brigades, the 57th and 58th, whose regiments, raised in the warmth of southern France, must have found it a deeply unattractive and frightening place. The undergrowth was so thick that there was no clear sight lines or fields and attacks emerged suddenly and with deadly effect out of the damp. dense tangle of woodland. For men who could not see what was happening, listening to the enemy became even more important than usual. Even this was impossible in stormy weather, when the wind roaring in the trees drowned out any sound made by the other side.

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A French bunker in Malancourt Wood built by the 285th Infantry, probably in 1915

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new tactics

The southerners soon attracted official suspicion. As early as November 1914, 58 Brigade was accused of weakly allowing the enemy to gain a foothold in the wood. Tensions increased during a truce to bury the dead, when two French lieutenants came too close to the German trenches and were captured. An immediate counter attack launched by a company equipped with heavy wire cutters and a device like a Bangalore torpedo – a long tube to which were attached scores of small explosive devices and which could only be used on the express order of the regimental commander – was a failure; and rather than attack again the same way, the French began to mine under the German positions. However, the Germans were also mining and on 6 December 1914, they exploded three mines under the French positions and rushed forward. The company commander – Captain Léandri of 7 Company, 141st Infantry Regiment – had been wounded at the start of the action and with the captain out of action general panic ensued, with men running away and others surrendering. As usual, a counter attack was ordered, this time using a mortar, whose plunging trajectory was more useful among trees than the traditional flat trajectory guns further back. However, the captain in charge of the mortar was captured and with the other artillery officers claiming to be unable to use it this attempt also failed. When, in the early hours of the following morning, two fresh companies finally attacked the German positions they were driven off in hand-to-hand fighting with heavy losses. Léandri’s company had more or less disappeared.

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The mine crater formed by the three German mines blown in 6 December 1914

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There was fury at the highest level. Within a few days the brigade commander was made available for other duties while the regimental commander was retired with immediate effect. At the same time a General Order at Corps level severely reprimanded 7 Company, 141st Infantry, for having failed to use every means of defence available before being captured. The 7th Company was never reconstituted. It was a portent of things to come.

Mine warfare continued during 1915, particularly in the eastern and western extremities of the wood, where the lines were close together. Troops on both sides spent nerve-jangling time listening for the sound of enemy mining, never knowing when an enemy crowbar or pickaxe might break through into trench or mine gallery. Accounts from both sides speak of attacks and counter attacks by day and night across lines anything from ten to fifty metres apart, with regular explosions rocking the wood, shells falling and violent bursts of rifle and machine gun fire. And there was worse: on 26 February 1915, after a violent bombardment in the eastern half of the wood, the French front line suddenly burst into flames and there was screaming and panic as burning men fled back. It was a new tactic: the projection of inflammable liquid on to the enemy trenches where it was subsequently ignited. While the action did not involve attackers carrying portable flame throwers – that came later – it was bad enough. In the panic some six hundred metres of ground were given up and although most of it was retaken the following day, an official enquiry was ordered into the worrying défaillences – weaknesses or lapses – on the part of the unhappy French defenders.

Malancourt Wood was only one part of a very extensive forest that stretched both north and west. The first German units had arrived there in late 1914 and by the end of 1915 they had made themselves comfortable.

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Making yourself at home: a German officers' residence in the woods on the Verdun front

Rolf Wippermann

The great oaks and beeches provided huts for troops, tree trunks and logs for corduroy roads wide enough for horse drawn wagons, and defences against light calibre shelling. Less than a kilometre from the front lines there were several well-built kitchens and comfortable infantry camps, each electrically lit and accommodating two companies, separate camps for pioneers and machine gunners, regimental and brigade command posts, supply dumps, a cemetery and even a swimming pool. A water supply ensured cleanliness and hygiene at all times while a light railway linked all the important sites with the main pioneer park. It was not just the camps that were well built; the trenches were also carefully constructed. There were dugouts for small groups of men, lines of wooden stakes forming obstacles, machine gun and observation posts of reinforced concrete and deep communication trenches running back to the guns. Except where the lines ran close together, it was very quiet. A few shells morning and evening, the odd explosion or burst of rifle fire and for most of the time that was all.

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A German trench mortar position in Malancourt Wood

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But fine as it all was, by the end of 1915 the weather was taking its toll and to the men of the 120th Landwehr, who arrived in the wood in December 1915, none of it looked as if it would withstand a serious assault. Urgent improvements were ordered, incorporating the lessons learned during the 1915 battles in Artois and Champagne. These involved excavating deep dugouts to shelter men waiting to go into action, improving signalling and observation, digging cable trenches and running more communication trenches directly to the front line. It also involved pushing saps as close as possible to the enemy front line and mining under the intervening ground in order to blow it up at zero hour and allow the assault parties to advance. Trench mortar and flame thrower positions were also created. The pioneers had a particularly hard time maintaining and draining the existing positions, which winter rain filled with several feet of water and mud. To the amusement of the men, a whole army of architects, surveyors and hydraulic engineers descended on the forest full of plans and projects for the various sectors that were not always to the taste of the field fortification specialists and which resulted in noisy arguments about pumps, hoses, fascines and who should use them.


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A German heavy trench mortar

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The French were also improving their lines and their artillery was becoming more active. Gone were the quiet days with a few shells at regular intervals. Now there were prolonged barrages with heavy shells and mortars, which tore up the corduroy roads and the railway, damaged the water and electricity supply – unnecessarily, in the view of the Germans – and made men run where previously walking had been the norm. French observation balloons appeared, leave was stopped and rumours circulated, mostly originating in field kitchens at the rear, of big guns and serious action to come. During the night of 4 March a new assault division came into line, the famous 11th Bavarian, which had seen victorious action on the Eastern Front in 1915. They were commanded by General von Kneussl, who had received the Pour le Mérite, Germany’s highest decoration for valour, for his part in the capture of Przemysl. Now there could be no doubt about it, action was imminent and from the build up of stores, tools and rations, not to mention the creation of new first aid posts, it would be serious. As the days went by French guns ranged back and forth over the German front and rear, hitting supply dumps, roads, assembly points, batteries, stations, pioneer parks and any other useful sites until the formerly peaceful camps and tracks were piled with dead horses, smashed wagons and corpses. French artillery activity also hampered the transfer of German heavy batteries and ammunition to their new positions and the middle of March had passed before the move was completed and all the batteries were fully supplied.


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One of the two mine craters on the eastern side of Malancourt Wood

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20 March: a French disaster
The Malancourt Wood offensive had originally been planned for 9 March but it was postponed when progress in the Mort-Homme sector was slower than expected. Four regiments were involved: the 120th Landwehr on the right; two of General von Kneussel’s special assault regiments, the Bavarian 22nd and 3rd, in the centre and on the left; and the 10th Infantry on the extreme left. The plan was for the 120th Landwehr to capture the high ground on the south side of the wood and hold in check a major French fieldwork there while the two Bavarian regiments cleared the wood and the 10th dealt with the strong points along its eastern edge.

Facing the Germans were the 111th and the 258th Infantry Regiments, supported by territorials. The urgent need to improve the defences of Malancourt Wood had led to the 111th being left in position for thirty five days and the men were exhausted and filthy. The arrival of General von Kneussel’s division, together with increased railway activity in the rear and rising levels of shelling, had made it clear that an attack could be expected but it had not been expected that day and after standing to in the early morning, the men had returned to labouring. They had three lines of defence: an advanced line formed of separate strong points; a zigzag trench known as the Grand Parallel some 150 to 200 metres further back that cut through the wood from side to side; and the final line of resistance, or barrage line, which defended the southern tip of the wood. The tip had been organized as a redoubt for a last ditch defence and it was there in the redoubt – confusingly known as the Avocourt Redoubt – that the brigade command post was situated. The whole wood was surrounded by wire, with more dense tangles of wire between the various lines.

At 7am on 20 March the guns opened up, swamping the French lines with high explosive and gas. Packed together in the stuffy darkness of their underground shelters, the Germans waited through the long hours of screaming bombardment, occasionally checking their watches and trying to get some food down their dry throats. The bombardment continued until 3pm when, after a final terrifying paroxysm and a series of explosions accompanied by huge plumes of smoke, the artillery lifted its range and they attacked. Aerial reconnaissance and accurate plans of the French defences found on deserters meant that the attackers knew what to expect but to their surprise all they found were gaping shell holes, rubble and corpses. The bombardment had demolished the trenches and smashed the blockhouses and there was little resistance from men who had been subjected for hours to terrifying shelling, buried, suffocated by gas and rocked by giant explosions. As the assault units swept forward, with the infantry racing to keep up and firing rockets to indicate their position, prisoners began to pour towards the German lines. Flame throwers and hand grenades cleared any men still holding out in dugouts while the machine guns, each of which had been photographed from the air and mapped, were quickly silenced. Swiftly reaching the redoubt, the attackers surrounded the brigade command post and trapped the commander, Colonel Brumm, inside with his staff. The command post still had a working telephone line and Colonel Brumm personally telephoned divisional headquarters with the news that they were surrounded. However, he could tell them nothing of the general situation in the wood.

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A wash house and fountain on the country road between Montfaucon and Malancourt Wood. The road was known as the Preussenweg and for many German soldiers the fountain offered the last chance of fresh water before they reached the line

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It was soon over. Within three hours of the start of the action, Malancourt Wood was in German hands. The prize included a massive haul of machine guns, trench mortars and field guns, the regimental colours of the 111th Infantry and a field kitchen with hot soup. With casualties of almost 700 men, the action had not been entirely cost-free for the Germans but for the French it was an utter disaster: they had lost an entire brigade. The prisoner count was almost 3000 men, most of them unwounded, including the brigade commander, both regimental commanders and almost sixty other officers. In addition, well over 1000 men had been killed or wounded or were missing.

There was stupefaction at 29th Division headquarters when the news arrived. Colonel Brumm was highly appreciated and Malancourt Wood had been regarded as a perfect example of field fortification. In their defence the survivors of the 111th claimed that the Germans had pushed down through the centre of the wood to the redoubt before spreading out and attacking them from the rear and that this, together with the total breakdown in communications caused by smashed telephone lines and runners who never returned, meant that they had no chance to defend their positions. That cut no ice with the French high command, for whom such a shocking failure could only be explained by grave weakness and demoralization. They pointed to the numerous desertions that had taken place over the previous months and suspected that the two regiments in question had connived with the enemy and agreed to surrender. An enquiry was immediately ordered and within a week General Joffre had ordered that the 258th, a reserve regiment, was to be DISBANDED – the capital letters in the original document indicating the extreme seriousness of the measure. The regimental colours were to be returned to the depot and the remaining officers and men dispersed among other divisions. Under no circumstances WHATEVER should any units of the 258th remain with the division. Four months later the 111th Infantry was also disbanded, the only active regiment in the French army to be so treated before the Armistice. It was a terrible disgrace.


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Machine gunners of the 120th Landwehr Infantry, one of the regiments that took part in the Malancourt Wood offensive of 20 March1916

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It was also a terrible blow to the entire French defence of the area, because it broke the organized defence line between Malancourt Wood and Cote 304 and thus compromised the whole defence of the Left Bank. An immediate counter attack was launched but the attackers were stopped by their own wire and it was only on 29 March that French troops finally managed to recapture the redoubt. Although fighting along the southern side of the wood continued, the Germans never managed to break out to the south and Avocourt Redoubt, which was separated from the German lines by only a few metres, remained in French hands until August 1917.

It was evident to General Pétain that the Germans were fully intending to continue their offensive on the Left Bank and, knowing the weight of artillery deployed, he believed that any attempt to push them back to their starting point would only result in wearing down the forces he had available. As a result, he preferred to organize the Left Bank for defence in depth, with several strong lines being held by troops determined not to abandon even the smallest piece of ground. They would be supported by the Left Bank forts, which had been largely abandoned but were now to be re-armed, garrisoned and fully supplied. On 22 March General Pétain reorganized the whole sector and fixed the line to be held at all costs. From now on the tactic was to be one of aggressive disruption and to that end the artillery was ordered to keep up continuous concentrated artillery fire to destroy existing German positions and prevent the establishment of new ones. Every opportunity to cause the Germans the greatest possible harm had to be taken; and they were not to be allowed time to rest or reorganize. If any ground was lost, it was to be immediately recaptured in order to re-establish the line and prevent further enemy success. Pétain’s watchword was the absolute inviolability of the front and to that end all units had to strengthen their positions and be prepared to die where they stood.

Supplying the front
By the end of March Second Army had over half a million men available for the defence of Verdun. It was a far cry from the two divisions that met the German onslaught on the Right Bank on 21 February and few would have believed it possible. On the eve of the German offensive the main supply route into Verdun – the secondary road from Bar-le-Duc, a town some seventy-five kilometres to the south – had been taken over by the Service Automobile and, in accordance with the logistical plan prepared in 1915, a Regulating Commission was established. Within four hours the winding road had been entirely cleared of traffic and reserved exclusively for army motor transport. The Commission’s task was to keep the road running at all times and in order to do so it was divided into six administrative sectors, or cantons, each headed by an officer with wide ranging powers to keep traffic flowing and the road repaired. Within twenty-four hours of the start of the battle, convoys of trucks had transported an entire division to Verdun from Bar-le Duc.

The task of the Service Automobile was to supply the Verdun sector with an average of 2,000 tons of ammunition each day, in addition to the roughly one hundred tons of daily rations and supplies needed by each division. It also had to cope with all necessary troop transport to and from the front, and the evacuation of men and material. It rose to the challenge. During the first two anxious weeks of the battle, convoys of trucks carried 22,250 tons of munitions and 190,000 men to the front, in addition to rations, pioneer and medical supplies, troops on leave, medical evacuees and even a few civilians. In that time the number of vehicles available rose to almost 4,000. Every day 1,700 trucks made the journey in each direction between Bar-le-Duc and Verdun, an average of one truck every 25 seconds while the Petit Meusien light railway, supplemented by locomotives and wagons rushed in from all over France, supplied thousands of tons of rations for an army which, on 1 March, already comprised almost 440,000 officers and men and 136,000 horses and mules. More would be needed as the battle went on but it was a remarkable start and one with which General Pétain and General Joffre could be well pleased.

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Verdun memorial to the work of the logistics corps in supplying the Verdun front compromises scenes from along the Voie Sacree. This shows one of the troop transports

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22 March: the next step
With Malancourt Wood in their hands, the next phase of the German offensive could take place. Their positions in the wood, and particularly in the redoubt, were enfiladed from a multitude of French positions that had to be cleared before an attempt could be made on the summit of Cote 304. The plan to clear them involved a two stage operation to be launched on 22 March. The first stage involved the capture of two hilltop positions, the Ouvrage de Vaucluse and the Mamelon d’Haucourt, which were situated roughly 1000 metres from the eastern edge of Malancourt Wood and flanked the villages of Malancourt and Haucourt. Once these were in German hands, swiftly moving units would seize, first, a series of other strongpoints on the western flanks of Cote 304 and, second, the two villages. If successful, this operation would not only remove a substantial number of obstacles but would push the German line to within two kilometres of the summit of Cote 304.

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A French machine gun post for two guns standing between Malancourt Wood and Vaucluse Hill

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Aerial observation had shown Vaucluse and the Mamelon to be strongly organized but their capture did not appear to be too much to ask of fresh troops attacking with powerful artillery support. But if the Germans hoped for a repeat of the French collapse in Malancourt Wood, they were disappointed. Here there was no forest cover and, as the Germans quickly discovered, the French use of ground was so outstanding that an attack on any one of these positions immediately came under fire from several directions. In the circumstances casualties were likely to be very high, and they were.

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A German observation post in the rear of the Malancourt Wood lines

Wim Degrande

As soon as it was realised that an action was planned, the tactic of aggressive disruption came into play and every French gun, light or heavy, long or short, whether belonging to the sector or not, roared into action, concentrating its fire on the German lines or the assumed target with the aim of preventing the action or of breaking it up. Throughout the morning French guns, assisted by spotter planes and captive balloons, ranged up and down the front, sweeping the approaches to the hilltops and blasting the ground, so that enemy positions that were clear enough on the map became impossible to identify. Men were falling from the moment they moved off and it took two hours of slow methodical work before Vaucluse and the Mamelon d’Haucourt were carried. While that was a success, the rest of the day’s operation failed completely. French positions believed to be deserted or captured turned out to be strongly defended, men got caught in tangles of broken wire, flanking fire hit them from the side and machine guns which had been overlooked in the tumult took them in the rear and mowed them down. Liaison was lost almost immediately and it was fifteen hours before reports began to arrive. They were followed by a slow trickle of exhausted and mud covered men whose horrified expressions testified to the appalling carnage they had seen. Altogether fifty three officers and over 2400 men were killed that day and countless others wounded and captured. If 22 March was one of the most heroic days in the life of the four German regiments taking part in the action, it was also one of the bloodiest. As Schlachten des Weltkrieges, the German narrative history of the war, sadly admitted, it was not the first time that the intention of planners at the rear had been defeated by conditions at the front. It would not be the last.

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A small French machine gun post, still standing on the top of the Mamelon d'Haucourt

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Christina Holstein is an independent, multilingual historian now based in Britain. A long period of residence in Luxembourg allowed her to develop her historical interests in a part of the Western Front which saw serious fighting in WWI but which is relatively unknown in the UK. She is fortunate in being able to research the battlefield with local people whose relatives either fought there or returned to live in the area after 1918, as well as with German historians and researchers. In addition to publishing four books on the Battle of Verdun, Christina regularly conducts tours of the battlefield for individuals or groups and, with her specialized knowledge of the terrain, has acted as consultant to a number of other historians and to the BBC.
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The family death notice for Karl Kottel, 3rd Bavarian Infantry Regiment, a senior NCO and aspirant officer who had a degree in medicine. He was killed on 20 March 1916

Wim Degrande

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A patriotic postcard in honour of General von Kneussl, the victor of Przemysl

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A French 58mm mortar

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Further Reading


Verdun: The Left Bank
(Paperback - 190 pages)
ISBN: 9781473827035

by Christina Holstein
Only £12.99

This new and enthralling study is the first detailed work in English of a largely unknown period of the Battle of Verdun. It considers the background to the battle and casts light on the first three critical months of fighting there. It explains the decision to change the original German plan for the Verdun offensive and extend the action to the Left Bank of the River Meuse.

Using only original French and German sources the author describes the fighting on the Left Bank and follows the…
Read more at Pen & Sword Books...

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